Review: Abalone

By Kelsey Rinella 21 Mar 2013 0
Sexual innuendo is hard! The column on the right lengthens and turns red as your turn approaches its finish.

Abalone is a conversion of an abstract board game introduced in 1987. It was loosely inspired by sumo wrestling; though this is very abstracted, that theme does come surprisingly through in the gameplay. As would be expected from the publisher of Autumn Dynasty (and many other games), BulkyPix have made the game as attractive as the eye-catching physical version. Though the app cannot capture the pleasing tactile experience of its inspiration, Abalone has been popular for decades for more than the joy of touching its bits.

I am convinced that hexagons are the greatest shape in gaming. They not only allow more flexible movement across an evenly-tiled plain, they also give us the most interesting property of Abalone's gameplay: its judo-like turning of an opponent's attack which often sets up a strong counter. The game consists of moving up to three balls in a line one space each in the same direction. They can push fewer opposing balls so long as this would not push one of your own balls on the far side, with the goal of pushing opposing balls out of the ring. The result is a strategically deep, if overly defensive, game which encourages the development of skill with a large set of levels which serve as exercises. These help focus your attention on high-level strategies like occupying the center, using small sacrifices to provoke an overreaction, and holding your balls together.

An exercise with a lot of qualifiers. It's like the world's pickiest personal ad.

The lack of online multiplayer is disappointing, but the game is very well-suited to pass-and-play due to the lack of hidden information. Every day a new challenge board is unlocked, giving you a reason to come back to the app. Those I've seen have been difficult enough that I expect will keep the game interesting over time. You can play against three levels of AI, though I found the highest of them quite beatable even before I finished the exercises. Abalone's longevity is therefore likely to depend on the aforementioned daily challenges and the ability to start the game in a wide variety of exotic positions.

The interface is intuitive enough, but has one minor feature worthy of special praise. After each move, you either confirm or undo. If you undo, the view zooms in on the relevant area, making it easier to avoid repeated fat-finger problems. This is just brilliant. I've not seen it before, and hope it becomes standard among games with similar affordances. It would have been even better if it were possible to pan around while zoomed. Still, the game uses an innovative method to help you do exactly what you want with your fingers.

Among frequent boardgamers, it is my impression that Abalone has been somewhat eclipsed by the Project GIPF games, six two-player abstracts with similarly striking bits and a modern aesthetic. Abalone remains more widely known, however, and I've seen no reports of any plans to bring the GIPF series to the handheld market. Even for those interested in learning a game digitally in order to transfer that expertise to a physical copy, therefore, Abalone may be preferable due to the availability of a larger number of willing partners.

Review: Abalone

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